The post-Obama Middle East is a grim and ugly place: the brutal wars in Syria, the deepened chaos in Iraq, the shambolic Libya mess, the vaulting ambition of Iran, the intrusion of Russia, the smoldering failure of the Arab Spring, and the collapse of the U.S.-Turkish relationship.
President Obama cannot be blamed for everything that went wrong in the Middle East on his watch. But it’s clear the Trump administration inherited an incoherent strategy, a discredited democracy agenda, alienated allies, and an American public so traumatized by successive American policy misfires that it has become skeptical about any American engagement in the region.
It is not a surprise under these circumstances that the Trump administration wants to change course, or that its efforts to do so have enjoyed significant support in the region. If the rise of Iran has created a crisis in the Middle East, it has also created a great opportunity. Israel and most of the Arab world are so horrified by the Iranian threat, and so unnerved by the vagaries of recent American policy, that the new administration has been able to repair relations with many old allies relatively quickly.
But if relations with Israel and Arab states have rapidly warmed, relations with Turkey have deteriorated dangerously—so much that the U.S. is looking for alternatives to its important air base in Incirlik.
president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has even called for the removal of American nuclear weapons from the country.
The Turkish alliance has been a pillar of America’s Middle East strategy since the Truman administration; indeed, it was Britain’s decision to end aid to Turkey and Greece in February 1947 that prompted the U.S. strategic review culminating in the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. With Iran hostile and the Arab world in disarray, Turkey is more important than ever to American policy.
Yet rebuilding relations with Turkey will force the U.S. to make some hard choices. One is about human rights. As with President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi in Egypt, a close relationship with Turkish President
Recep Tayyip Erdogan
would raise difficult questions for America’s human-rights policy. Past policy failures in the Middle East make it hard for Americans to push a democracy and human-rights agenda in the region credibly, but Wilsonians—a significant part of any American political coalition interested in strong leadership abroad—are appalled by the evident repression in Turkey since the failed coup. If the Trump administration wants a close strategic relationship with Mr. Erdogan, it will have to accept some bitter and wounding criticism from human-rights advocates at home and in Europe.
The second choice is even harder. Syrian Kurds have been America’s most useful partners in the war against
But their politics and ambitions directly conflict with the policy of Mr. Erdogan, who considers Syrian Kurds to be allies of terrorist forces in Turkey. Turkey bears a significant portion of the blame for the continuing conflict with the PKK, the Kurdish organization that has been fighting the Turkish government since 1984. Nevertheless, if the U.S. wants Turkey’s help, it will have to address Turkish concerns about America’s alliance with Syrian Kurds more effectively.
It would be a mistake to be too pessimistic about the U.S.-Turkish alliance. While relations are frosty, the core interests of the two countries, which diverged after the collapse of the Soviet Union, are again closely aligned. The Russian-Iranian partnership now dominating Syria and upending the regional balance of power is Turkey’s worst nightmare come true. Turkish leaders know their country can’t counter this transformation without American support.
The Middle East coalition the Trump administration needs to rebuild must inevitably contain countries that don’t like or trust one another. Egypt and Saudi Arabia see Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood as a strategic threat. Mr. Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister
hold each other in contempt. The recent warming of relations between Israel and the Gulf states is both temporary and fragile.
The U.S., and only the U.S., can hold this coalition together. Without it, there is no viable path for containing Iran. Turkey is a key member of any realistic coalition to rebalance the Middle East; getting to yes with Mr. Erdogan is one of the administration’s most crucial challenges in the region.
Appeared in the March 13, 2018, print edition.